Historical debate veers between admiring and denigrating Alexander the Great, but Professor Paul Cartledge puts him in his proper historical context.
It seems there have been many Alexander the Greats - as many as there have been serious students of him as man, hero and/or god. There are two main reasons for this multiplicity and plasticity. First, and more poetically, the great leader's achievements - both in his lifetime and posthumously (the Alexander myth or legend) - are simply staggering. Second, the original narrative sources that survive for Alexander are mostly either very non-contemporary (eg Plutarch's biography of c.100 AD, and Arrian's narrative history of a little later in the second century AD), or very skewed by partisanship - pro or con, or both.
In the past there have been those who saw him as essentially reasonable and gentlemanly, or dynamic and titanic, or Homerically heroic. But the recent trend has been decidedly negative, emphasising variously his conquering bloodlust, his megalomania, or alleged alcoholism.
'But the recent trend has been decidedly negative, emphasising variously his conquering bloodlust, his megalomania, or alleged alcoholism.'
Here I hope not to err on the side of gratuitous mudslinging, in my search for clues to the mainsprings of Alexander's character. But I do lay stress on his grand passion for hunting game - human as well as animal, and the bigger and more dangerous the better. Such macho feats offered him the chance to enhance his standing in the eyes of his subjects, as well as to ensure an impressive reputation into posterity.
Image of the hunt
One of the earliest clues to this aspect of his character is an image - thought to be probably of Alexander - painted in fresco above the front entrance to what we usually call the 'Tomb of Philip' (whether or not we believe it to be actually the tomb of Alexander's father, King Philip II). This monumental tomb was erected at the ancient Macedonian ceremonial capital of Aegae (modern Vergina), some time within the last third or so of the fourth century BC.
The fresco depicts hunting scenes, and it is natural to identify the central figure as a young Alexander engaged, with his father, in what we know to have been one of Alexander's favourite pastimes. Except that to call it a 'pastime' may give a misleading impression, since hunting in Macedon - as in some other ancient societies, such as Sparta - was actually an important culturally coded marker of social and political status.
In Macedon, you did not become fully a man until you had passed the key manhood test of hunting and killing, without a net, one of the ferocious wild boar that roamed the heights of upper (western) Macedonia. Only then could you recline - as opposed to sit - when participating in the daily ritual of the symposium. This was the regular evening drinking party, at which and through which the Macedonian elite celebrated together and mutually confirmed their elevated social and political status.
Another kind of hunting - the killing of an enemy in battle - entitled a Macedonian to wear a special kind of belt, as a visual reminder of his attainment. Alexander had passed both those tests triumphantly by the age of 16 (in 340 BC), when his father thought him already sufficiently mature to act as regent of Macedon.
Campaigner and hunter
In 336 Alexander became king not only of Macedon, but also of most of mainland Greece. He inherited the mantle of his late father, as leader of a pan-hellenic expedition of holy revenge and liberation against the once mighty Persian empire. During the 11 years of his almost non-stop campaigning in Asia (334-323), periods of rest and recreation were infrequent as he strove to achieve his ambitious aims, to the undoubted chagrin of his officers and troops; but one of his favourite means of relaxation was hunting.
As his biographer Plutarch put it, 'When he had time on his hands, he would get up and sacrifice to the gods ... then he would go on to spend the day hunting ...' . For example, in a safari park near Maracanda (Samarkand in Uzbekistan) in the early 320s, a bag of no fewer than 4,000 wild game, including lions, is reported. That was the reward for the capture of the fearsome Sogdian Rock.
'It has been said that there was a direct connection between this punishment and Dimnus's alleged plotting against Alexander's life in 327 BC.'
To illustrate this, at the Pella Archaeological Museum in Macedonia there is a beautiful pebble mosaic, which is thought to depict Alexander in pursuit of danger and excitement - a mosaic that originally adorned a floor in a luxurious Hellenistic-period house, the so-called House of Dionysus. According to the favoured interpretation, this may well be modelled on a bronze statue-group in the round executed by Alexander's court sculptor, Lysippus, and shows his leading companion, Craterus, famously supporting Alexander as he hunted lions in a game park in Syria.
Sometimes, though, it was not only wild game that was the object of Alexander's hotheaded attention. More than once, a leading Macedonian made the mistake of intercepting the major quarry and robbing Alexander of the pleasure and pride of making the kill.
In one of these incidents, the offender was a member of Alexander's own royal retinue, one Dimnus, who received humiliating punishment for his supposed presumptuousness. It has been said that there was a direct connection between this punishment and Dimnus's alleged plotting against Alexander's life in 327 BC.
Throughout his life Alexander was exceptionally preoccupied with his image, both literally and metaphorically. One of his non-Greek protégés appreciated this very well and had himself buried in a stone coffin, now in the Archaeological Museum, Istanbul, adorned with images showing Alexander hunting either a human or animal prey.
The strikingly well preserved artefact is known as the 'Alexander Sarcophagus', for the good reason that on one long side a figure unambiguously meant to be Alexander is depicted on horseback, in vigorous and deadly combat against a Persian.
The horse in question was Bucephalas (the name means Ox-Head), a magnificent - and prodigiously expensive - Thessalian stallion, probably named for the shape of the white blaze on his muzzle. It was alleged that only Alexander had been able to break the horse in, and he became so attached to the animal over the next two decades or so that he actually named a city - Bucephala - after him, in an area now part of modern Pakistan (site unidentified).
'Throughout his life Alexander was exceptionally preoccupied with his image, both literally and metaphorically.'
The scenes on the short sides of the Alexander Sarcophagus depict the hunting of lions and panthers. Traditionally, the coffin has been attributed to Abdalonymus, king of Sidon, and the sources record that Abdalonymus received his appointment from Alexander through the good offices of another of Alexander's most devoted companions, his friend from boyhood and alter-ego, Hephaestion. But an alternative interpretation attributes the sarcophagus rather to the much more important Mazaeus.
This man was a noble Persian, whom Alexander appointed to govern Babylon after he had transferred his allegiance from the defeated Persian great king Darius III, following the decisive battle of Gaugamela (331 BC). Whichever interpretation is correct, the relatives and friends of the dead occupant knew well how best to honour a close lifetime association with the Nimrod of ancient Greece, the mighty hunter Alexander.
The Alexander Romance
Alexander himself died at Babylon in June 323 BC, at the age of only 32. The circumstances of his death are almost as unclear as those of his father, though it probably smacks too much of the historical novel to suggest that Alexander was assassinated, possibly by poison. Rather, he is most likely to have caught a deadly fever, probably malarial, after years of pushing himself beyond reasonable limits.
His passing was greeted very differently in different parts of his vastly enlarged empire. The traditional enemies of Macedon in Greece were thrilled to bits, whereas those Greeks and non-Greeks who had gladly worshipped him as a living god felt genuinely bereft. Whatever is thought of his lifetime achievements, there is no questioning the impact of his posthumous fame.
'The traditional enemies of Macedon in Greece were thrilled to bits, whereas those Greeks and non-Greeks who had gladly worshipped him as a living god felt genuinely bereft.'
Thanks above all to the literary text known as the Alexander Romance, created originally at the great leader's most famous foundation - the city of Alexandria, in Egypt - Alexander has featured internationally as a hero, a quasi-holy man, a Christian saint, a new Achilles, a philosopher, a scientist, a prophet, and a visionary. The more earthy musings of the hero of Shakespeare's Hamlet, in the graveyard scene, are just one chauvinistic illustration of the fact that Alexander has featured in the literature of some 80 countries, stretching from our own Britannic islands (as Arrian, called them) to the Malay peninsula - by way of Kazakhstan.
That is another way of saying that Alexander is probably the most famous of the few individuals in human history whose bright light has shot across the firmament to mark the end of one era and the beginning of another.
One of our best sources on Alexander, Arrian, focused on one particular quality of Alexander, his pothos or overmastering desire to achieve or experience the humanly - and divinely - unprecedented. Alexander's hunt for what was in the end unattainable by him in his lifetime provides us with the chance, and the motive, to conduct a new hunt to try to capture the daunting immensity of his achievement.
Alexander the Great Timeline
History of Alexander by Arrian Anabasis, translated by A de Sélincourt, edited by JR Hamilton (Penguin Classics, 1971)
'Life of Alexander' in Plutarch. Greek Lives translated by R Waterfield (Oxford World Classics, 1998)
The Greek Alexander Romance edited by R Stoneman (Penguin, 1991)
Legends of Alexander the Great by R Stoneman (Everyman, 1994)
Conquest and Empire: The Reign of Alexander the Great by AB Bosworth (Cambridge University Press, 1988)
Alexander the Great: The Heroic Ideal by P Briant (Thames and Hudson, 1996)
Alexander the Great: The Hunt for a New Past by Paul Cartledge (Pan Macmillan, 2004)
Alexander of Macedon, 356-323 BC. A Historical Biography by P Green (University of California Press, 1991)
Alexander the Great. A Reader edited by I Worthington (Routledge, 2003)
Alexander on the Web
Alexander the Great
PBS Online: Alexander the Great
Columbia Encyclopedia: Alexander the Great
About the author
Paul Cartledge is Professor of Greek History at the University of Cambridge. He is the author, co-author, editor and co-editor of 20 or so books, the latest being Alexander the Great: The Hunt for a New Past (Pan Macmillan, London, 2004). He was chief historical consultant for the BBC TV series 'The Greeks'.